State Of Play (2009)

April 27, 2009

lahr-crowe

There’s a few minor problems in making these notes.  Firstly, the film that the cinema listed as beginning at 19.45 was past the opening credits when I took my seat at 19.45 and who knows what I missed (not much I imagine in truth as big fat Russell Crowe- who looks increasingly like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion (see above)- was bribing his way onto the scene of the first crime scene as I arrived).  The second issue is that the film was followed by a televised Q&A with the director Kevin MacDonald and I want to satisfy myself that my notes reflect what I saw and not what I’ve been told I saw.  I’d forgotten until I saw the film that I’ve seen (at least some of) the original BBC series upon which it was based. Thankfully my recollections were not strong enough to spoil the plot or for me to draw comparisons with the original players. In fact the greater danger lies in my having seen Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men and The Parallax View; which are the more significant touchstones for the piece (Klute, another probable antecedent of State Of Play, is near the top of my teetering to-see pile).  The final problem is that- thanks to a combination of hectic work, golf, season 2 of The Wire, training for a charity run and socializing- I saw the film seven days before sitting down to complete these notes.

And while seven days ago I didn’t dislike it, on reflection I certainly don’t especially like it either.  The plus points are some strong acting performances (and I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome Crowe back to acting after his recent experiments with sleep-walking through films), some tight direction and editing and a really good pacy build-up to the climax.  Ah, the climax- I didn’t want to get to the climax straight away (and I swear that never normally happens!) but I may as well now.  In the enjoyable light comedy Paris When It Sizzles William Holden is talking Audrey Hepburn through the writing of a script (“aha! The twist… then the twist on the twist… and another twist” or something) and that’s what the ending of this film reminded me of.  I guess it’s true of thrillers in general but especially of this film- not every twist can be plausible and, when you’re ending on a solid and believable one, it doesn’t work to shoehorn in another one.  Especially if the tip-off clue isn’t much of a clue at all.  In State Of Play the tip-off is that a character reveals that she knows something which she shouldn’t leading Russell Crowe to uncover the whole thing.  But it doesn’t- not plausibly and his deduction is not the only (or even the likeliest) logical conclusion.  A solid but unspectacular thriller becomes, therefore, a flimsy melodrama.  It’s a real shame given the effort that had so clearly been invested in the piece.

The only other thing that stands out is that the soundtrack is absolutely fucking appalling- bombastic, overloud, generic and off-putting.  I was grumpy about it throughout and in the Q&A MacDonald indicated that he’d been unable to find a score which he thought was appropriate and the studio agreed with until the eleventh hour (he implied that he wanted something soft and piano-led).  He got what he was given I reckon, a shame.

Oh yes, and that feller off the Orange adverts is in it as a straight actor.  As is Jeff Daniels of one of the funniest films ever; Dumb And Dumber.

Anyway, 4/10 overall.  Solid except for Ben ‘Easter Island’ Affleck; he is appalling as ever.

affleck-easter

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Friday the 13th (2009)

February 24, 2009

Haven’t a clue if this is a sequel or a remake or just a synonym, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original and in any case this looks like any and every slasher movie I’ve ever seen anyway.  Having sat through Push– which was awful- and then My Bloody Valentine 3D– which was even worse- and experiencing the full multiplex phenomenon with a gang of rowdy teenagers having a popcorn fight, overloud speakers not quite in synch and the person behind me really pushing into the back of my chair as anyone over eight foot eleven would need to, I really felt that this was going to be a walkout unless something worth seeing happened quickly.  It didn’t, not really, but I stayed anyway.

This was probably the best of the three I saw in a row- though given the 0 and 1 ratings for the previous two this is hardly showering it with plaudits- because it was the most fun- this stems from the energy and pace of the film.  It opens with Jason’s mother avenging his death by killing a load of kids until the final one strikes first and chops off her head.  Then Jason comes back from the dead to save the head- cue titles.  Next a group of five teens (two couples and a geek) go camping and one of them tells the story of Jason and they all go off to have sex and get carved up one-by-one.  Oddly, the titles appear again at this point but who cares we’re about fifteen minutes in and it’s goretastic.

The film slows a little at this point.  The caption reads ‘Six weeks later’ and so either the first or second set of killings- is it giving too much away to say there’ll be more killings?- don’t happen on Friday the 13th.  In fact, I don’t recall the date ever being mentioned.  Anyway, at this point a little bit of storyline is shoehorned in- the brother of one of the five already who Jason encountered earlier  (a tall good-looking white-teethed teenager in his mid twenties) bumps into another group of seven teenagers all heading up towards Crystal Lake.  There’s a bit of friction with the alpha-male leader  (a tall good-looking white-teethed teenager in his mid twenties) and some chemistry with his girlfriend.  Then he heads off on his motorbike (ooh a rebel) and they go to a deserted house to strip off and get drunk before heading out in turn to meet Jason and never return.

Okay, calling that storyline is stretching it but it is at least a premise for the gore that follows.  Jason- who has apparently grown to superhuman strength on a diet of rat droppings and woodworm unless he is dead and I’m not totally sure about this- kills them (and a few neighbours and a cop who is sceptical about the frantic calls from drunken kids- always presented as ludicrously naive that) with economy and blood a-plenty.  One of the couples goes waterski-ing topless (is there any other way?), the rest either get drunk or go out into the dark investigating armed only with a torch which, like every torch in every horror movie ever, fails at just the wrong moment.

And it’s all good forgettable fun.  The demographic must love it- lots of gore, lots of nudity and over in an hour and a half.  There are loads of non-endings, maybe ten, as Jason just keeps coming back.  There’s even one to close the film which completes tonight’s hattrick of films blatantly being left open for  a sequel.  The lead actor  Jared Padalecki looks like he could have a future ahead of him and Aaron Yoo has great fun as a drunken teenager.

So, for being short and fun and gore packed and even having a couple of adequate performances, Friday the 13th scores a mighty 2/10.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

February 19, 2009

The absolute tragedy of The Man Who Knew Too Much is that the opening half an hour of scene-setting and character establishment isn’t anywhere near strong enough to match up to the genuinely gripping meat of the film.  It is not that the film is boring, it’s certainly not like The Deer Hunter where the viewer’s resolve is tested and only the mentally strong can stomach the fourteen hour Wedding in order to get to the great stuff hiding away afterwards.  It is simply that the opening half-hour establishes James Stewart and Doris Day as an irritating and slightly foolish couple who think rather more highly of themselves, though maybe not of one another, than they might.  And when the film turns gripping suddenly it’s not so much that I get discombobulated by the shift, it’s simply that there’s a period where I know that I’m not engaged in the way that I should be and need to be for the film to work.  It happens of course, despite Doris Day and all the ‘oh-so-wholesome, apple pie, Que Sera Sera, too good to be true and dull as a pair of old pants’ baggage she brings I do begin to care.  I do get edgy.  I do want her to find a way to stop the shot.  That’s the skill of Hitchcock.  But he has to use so much of it redeeming the first half hour and- let’s be frank I hope this was forced upon him- the presence of Doris fucking Day and her fucking song, that the film is nowhere near the levels of dramatic excellence it could have reached.  For him to have blown his second shot at this story, and I haven’t seen the first in some years so I can only assume that he was unhappy with that too, is a real tragedy.  And it is blown- a real wasted opportunity.  Of course, as ever, I’m being hypercritical of someone I greatly admire.  If this was, say, a Barry Levinson film I’d be raving about it and moaning that he hardly ever shows any signs of this kind of skill in his other films.  But however good a job Hitch does of making up for it, there’s still no getting away from the fact that he lets her sing that fucking song in his film.  Twice!  Oscar my arse (as an Aston Villa manager may have said back in the sixties).

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So I’m not going to mention her again- other than to say in some scenes she’s really pretty convincing, its just that in others she’s useless which means that she may as well have been useless all along.  Right, that’s it!  No more mentions of that woman again.  And no I’m not on about that woman, Ms Lewinsky, I’m referring- or rather no longer referring- to the blonde bombsite up there .

The film then takes a wonderful turn just over half an hour in.  There has been intrigue before this with the urbane but mysterious Louis Bernard’s behaviour perplexing the normal, upright McKennas.  There’s even been a murder- Bernard in largely unexplained face-paint is butchered in a busy Marrakesh market right in front of the McKennas.  But 37 minutes in Jimmy Stewart receives a chilling call, Bernard Herrmann strikes up the band and Hitch focuses the camera on Jimmy’s hand anxiously gripping a telephone directory and the film takes flight.  Up to this point Stewart had played his character as grouchy and a little aloof, but this is stripped away instantly and he seems fallible and human and all of his ornery qualities become strengths.  It’s a clever performance by Stewart, playing an everyman character thrown into a volatile situation beyond normal comprehension could easily see the opening stages of the film played out by a sweet, happy, pleasant man- a male Doris Day if you like- rather than an uptight, opinionated, sometimes bolshie and sometimes funny guy.  And because he is a real person with a genuine and convincing angst over the safety of his son I find myself hooked.  The score helps, the direction helps but the real strength of the scene is in James Stewart’s brow.

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From that turning point we’re off on a Hitchcockian rollercoaster.  If you’ve seen The 39 Steps or North By Northwest, you’ll have seen this done better but it’s still exciting.  The action sees Day and Stewart frequently separate and not always acting with the other in mind, their frantic and often instinctual actions are beautifully shot with each finding themselves in odd positions as a result of their impetuosity- the scene with Stewart barging through a taxidermists as the staff try variously to restrain him and to protect their stuffed animals is priceless, James Stewart being bitten by a stuffed tiger in a Camden backstreet is not a sight you see every day!  There are false turns, red herrings,  suspicious officials and plausible bad-guys but at no point does this get confusing, it’s all deftly balanced and explained with great visual flourishes (though the earlier technicolour does look barely better than some colourised films I’ve seen) – and builds to the great Royal Albert Hall sequence.

The scene in the Royal Albert Hall is probably as dramatic as could be without tipping over into campy melodrama.  The set-up is fantastic, though it does require a little suspension of disbelief, and allows Hitch to stretch the scene out.  The viewer is already aware of the piece of music that will coincide in the shot being fired- a climactic cymbal crash- and the piece builds to it, then fades out several times heightening the tension through Doris Day’s character.  It is a beautiful example of how to control an audience.

After this, the film falls a little flat again.  The drama of what has just gone on needs to be released in some way but the plot requires that the final loose end is tied up.  This section of the film- lamentably shoehorning in another rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’- cannot help but be anti-climactic and the film loses some impact here too.  It is a little too contrived, a little too neatly arranged and the final scene where the couple return to their waiting guests- who would have had time to grow a beard during their absence- is as cheesy as Hitchcock ever got.

And so I find The Man Who Knew Too Much disappointing.  Plenty within it is of the highest calibre and much of the rest is really unworthy of such a great filmmaker. 5/10


Never Say Never Again (1983)

February 5, 2009

I can only think that the title is one of the smug selling points the producers made when pitching this bloody awful idea to Connery- “just think how funny it would be Sean!  Imagine Roger Moore’s face when he sees you’re back- that’ll raise a few eyebrows.  well, one…”.  That said, nothing should have persuaded him to get back in the toupee for this.  Nothing.  To coin a phrase- the world is not enough.

I’ve decided, in my wisdom, to watch all of the Bond’s that I’m pretty unfamiliar with and after this and The Man With The Golden Gun I’m beginning to think I should abandon the plan- clearly there’s a reason that I’m unfamiliar with them.

Presently I’m just short of an hour and a half in and I’ve paused it to write a few notes on here as an excuse not to watch any more.  When Connery jacked it in because he was too old it was already an overdue decision- he had sleepwalked through the last couple he made- and this was made twelve years after that.  There are concessions to that time-gap with Sean having a grey wig and a new stiff upper-lipped bureaucrat boss who has semi-retired him into teaching new recruits but it isn’t very convincingly done.  Anyway, M (Edward Fox- just how many of these Foxes are there?) sends Bond to convalesce in a Health Farm where he stumbles upon SPECTRE’s latest domination plot!  And so I’m thinking “this is fucking Thunderball isn’t it?” and sitting and gradually growing in fury that they’ve got Connery in to remake a film he made nearly twenty years earlier, but I resolve to stay calm and give it a chance.

Never Say Never Again / Octopussy - Battle of the Bonds

From memory this was brought out in direct competition with the ‘official’ release Octopussy.  Now the Roger Moore film was embarrassing because of the slapstick humour, the fact that Moore is too old and fat and the all-round low standards of everyone involved.  I think this is worse.  One of the great things about Bond is it’s fantasy- in Octopussy Moore got to fight a seven foot Sikh on the wings of a plane, Never Say Never Again‘s comparable moment was Connery fighting a bloke from Wolverhampton on the set of Dinnerladies.  This is a very watered-down attempt.  It isn’t low-budget and, as I said recently, I often prefer low-budget movies- the problem is that the vast majority of the budget seems to have been spent on getting Connery in and flying the crew to Barbados, the South of France and wherever else they fancied going.  Everything else is done shoddily and with disregard- the interiors are appalling for example.  The purpose of the movie appears to be to get people in, irrespective of what they’ll tell their friends when they leave.  This is not a film that could ever be a word-of-mouth success.  Even the dialogue- which is appalling- seems to have been designed with the trailer in mind- like this exchange between Bond and Q (not dear old Desmond Llewellyn, obviously):  Q- “Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence“.  Bond- “I shertainly hope sho too“.  Speaking of Q- who Bond mysteriously keeps calling Algernon- there is a slapstick appearance by rubber-faced so-called comedian Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling bureaucrat called Small-Fawcett- for fuck’s sake!- who foresees John Cleese’s cringeworthy Q.  If this wasn’t warning enough, I don’t know what would have been.

But this could have worked.  The premise, as I said, has real potential and Connery was certainly capable of delivering in the role a wearied, ageing, vulnerable Bond- which he really doesn’t do here.  I’m thinking of something like McQueen in The Hunter which I watched recently.  It isn’t a great movie by any means, but McQueen’s “I’m getting too old for this shit” performance would have been a great example to follow.  Aside from that, you have a magnificent Blofeld in Max von Sydow- bizarrely asked to use a Dutch/Flemish accent and Kim Basinger as a lead Bond girl.  Both here, though, are wasted.  The attention instead is paid to Klaus Maria Brandauer’s appalling Maximilian Largo (a villain as sinister and threatening as a ball of wool) and Barbara Carrera’s hilariously bad SPECTRE number 12 Fatima Blush.  From water-ski-ing in a thong to throwing a hissy fit when Bond suggests he may have once had better sex with a girl in Philadelphia, she is hardly Rosa Kleb.  SPECTRE were clearly hard up for villains after years of good work by Bond.  The film also feature’s Hit Man‘s American Football-player turned slab of wood blaxploitation star Bernie Casey as Felix.  He is crap obviously.

So the film wastes the opportunities it has and instead focuses upon trying to out-Roger Moore Roger Moore.  Bond is variously shot in soft-focus during a saxophone-scored bedroom scene (they didn’t even bother covering Sean’s tattoo for that one), chased by radio-controlled sharks, plays a video game against the villain Largo and fails to catch a woman in stilettos driving a Renault 5 despite being on a gadget-laden motorbike designed by Q.

I said above that I’ve paused about three quarters of the way through.  I’ve decided that I’m not watching the rest- 1/10.  One mark for simply being a Bond film.


Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

January 13, 2009

I am on such a run of great films that it’s in danger of getting a little tiresome to record my thoughts on here.  Another wonderful film, how predictable!

But this IS  a wonderful film.  Being a retelling of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, this film has to be special simply to avoid being a failure and is.  Herzog brings to the film a visual intelligence and a mastery of atmosphere which never wavers.  From the bright and airy opening in the Harkers’ home to the run down, austere isolation of Dracula’s castle, Herzog controls the viewer experience down to the nearest detail.  These are not images which are obvious or border upon self-parody, they are real and ground the viewing experience.  For stretches of the film, there is an almost dreamy mysticism about what we are seeing (at one point Harker states that he feels as though he was in a nightmare from which he cannot awake) but this is never achieved through simplistic, surreal imagery.  The film is built upon the atmosphere which Herzog creates through simple visual storytelling, with minimal but timely support from the soundtrack.  The meeting between Renfield and Harker is unsettling visually and disturbs all the more as a result, the scenes within the castle are claustrophobic and oppressive, the handheld footage of Harker’s journey takes us with him through breathtaking but ominous scenery and when finally we arrive at the castle the introduction of the vampire is sudden when film-watching conditioning prepares us for a tension-building, drawn-out wait.

When Harker (Bruno Ganz, a fine actor) first encounters Dracula (Klaus Kinski) the viewer is thus taken aback.  Suddenly, from trepidation we are confronted with the stark, cold presence of Count Dracula.  There is a chilliness which emanates from the screen and- though he looks very similar to Max Schreck in the original- Kinski’s appearance at the door retains the power to shock.

A word about Kinski at this point.  Having recently seen his seething, unhinged portrayal Aguirre it would not have been a stretch to imagine his Dracula being equally malevolent in tone.  It is not.  Neither does he settle for Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi’s more urbane and charming depiction of the vampire.  Kinski’s Dracula is racked with remorse at his condition, he is soft-voiced and almost effeminate but racked with self-loathing- his stealthy movements and bat-like countenance are at odds with his awkward stance and almost pitiful reluctance to act like the monster that he is.  His inner torment is present in every anguished movement, every syllable is tormented- when he is rejected by Lucy Harker (an impressive, and almost vampiric-looking Isabelle Adjani) he responds not with fury or force but with the anguished whimper of a whipped cur and a sorrowful retreat into the night.  To portray a grotesque fantasy figure of such widespread fame as real and believable, is both courageous and unexpected.  Kinski, again, proves himself to be a preconception-shattering actor of depth and resourcefulness.

Every scene here is shot through with a thorough attention to detail, the work that has been done to achieve this has been painstaking, there are scenes which would today be achieved through CGI and would look impotent but here are authentic and hard-hitting (most notably the rat-infested feast of the plagued).  Every aspect of the film has been tightly controlled, it is shot through with a purposefulness and an intent of supporting the whole which is monumental.  Herzog intended every second of footage to have precisely the effect that it does.  This is masterful scrupulous direction.

And it is in this way that Herzog is able to frame his film as a faithful but nevertheless non-derivative retelling of Murnau’s tale.  Kinski’s almost feral movements allow the key scenes featuring him to work in near-silence, his ghostly pallor allows the footage to become almost monochrome.  A tremendous achievement – 9/10.


Hit Man (1972)

January 10, 2009

hitman

“You’re a big cat, but don’t try selling me no wolf ticket”

This is great fun when you know the original version because you can enjoy the “jived up” script and- I imagine- it is an enjoyable enough film if you haven’t.

It basically follows the pattern of Mike Hodges’ ‘Get Carter’ but relocated to the US and with the addition of a scene showing a drunken Tackett (Carter) at his brother’s wake.  American Footballer Bernie Casey does well enough in the title role, Pam Grier makes the most of her part, Sam Laws has a ball in his supporting role and Roger E. Moseley is fine as baby Huey.  There’s not much else to say really- it’s a blaxploitation flick: superhuman black man thwarts all wrong-doers, shags nigh on eighty women in a weekend, calls everyone a nigger or a honky, dresses in a way that would stand out at a tranny convention and has his own funky wah-wah theme tune.

It’s entertaining but it really isn’t very good.  4/10.


Get Carter (2000)

January 9, 2009

get-carter-soundtrack-2000-score

Tonight is a special night, at my mate Handsome Gav’s house we’re watching the three versions of Get Carter that we know about in reverse chronological order.

First up, Stallone’s remake. I’ve never seen this but I remember Stallone doing a big cover story with Arena magazine ahead of the movie’s scheduled cinematic release. In the interview Stallone was asked whether his Carter died at the end as Michael Caine’s had in the original. His reply was that “he has a spiritual death and rebirth”. Oh dear. The cinematic release was pulled then and this film went straight to DVD. Plenty to be wary of there.

I’m not going to dwell too long on this film, it is as woefully bad as I’d imagined, but I will just comment quickly on the liberties they’ve taken with the original. The dead brother Frank is renamed Richie for no apparent reason, his wife is brought back to life in the shape of Miranda Richardson (there’s someone who really should know better), the gangster Kinnear- now renamed Jeremy Kinnear- is a gay billionaire computer programmer, Carter’s Boss Les (formerly Sid) Fletcher gets to know about Carter and his girlfriend fifteen minutes in.

What they appear to have decided in conceiving this remake is that the original would benefit from a washed-out, anaemic, colourless visual style and looking like a car advert. In fully bringing the concept up to date, they roped in hot music producer Jellybean Benitez to add some dance beats to Roy Budd’s superb original soundtrack. Jellybean is the man who wrote Madonna’s “Holiday”- a song that is about as old as I am. Couldn’t they get anyone better than that for fuck’s sake?

The iconic moments in the original film are reproduced here in a sadly diluted form- “you’re a big man but you’re in bad shape” is delivered by a seated Stallone in a calm manner to a standing Caine cameoing in Alf Roberts’ part (Stallone had to be seated I suppose, he’s giving away about six inches to Caine) and “your eyes look like pissholes in the snow” becomes the frankly nonsensical “you look like cat’s piss in the snow”. They have attempted, I suppose, to create their own memorable dialogue but it is insipid and uninspired. Several times Stallone threatens to “take it to another level”, Alan Cummings’ “you know why I like golf?” speech is especially awful and only Stallone’s “it’s good to be home” after duffing up a local is at all interesting.

What they’ve done here is to shake up the script (change the order and several of the character names swap places in the script) it’s a puny rewrite. By revealing that Carter can never go back from the outset the suspense that made the original is lost, instead we get a watered-down Carter (Caine’s was driven by blind hatred, Stallone’s is driven by a sense of remorse) who talks throughout about doing something right for once and making up for his mistakes. The dumbed-down script where a bloke from Scrubs appears throughout to talk to Carter and explain like a child’s narrator what has happened so far is insulting. I got so angry watching this that it isn’t funny.

Positives are very few and far between- Caine really gives his part every chance and that’s the only one that I can think of. One good point, therefore, 1/10.